Moonlight flit

‘I have instructed my land agent Giles Smyth to sell the farmstead at Haddenden, and the ten acres to Sir George Morrow in payment of my debts’. Lady Catherine Teme could read no further. With a cry of rage, she crumpled the letter into a ball and hurled it across the floor. Little by little, her inheritance was being squandered by her husband. Edward Teme had conveniently forgotten his Royalist ties, and sought to ingratiate himself with Cromwell’s government in London, while she rotted in Hertfordshire, her dark, neglected beauty slowly turning thin and sour. She felt as though she had been sent there to die, and often brooded on his neglect of her, and his involvement with ‘Fat Anne’, as she had privately dubbed the voluptuous Lady Berwyn. After the scene in which she had confronted his mistress, he had called her a dried up shrew, and banished her to Redbourn Place and obscurity, with no money and only a single servant, the ancient Yardley. Yardley was so slow and senile, that she sometimes felt she did more for him than he did for her. But it gave her a certain freedom.
Deciding to ride out to Haddenden, Catherine went down to the stable. It was deserted, and she tended and saddled Nocette, her black mare, who stood patiently still, knowing that she was about to canter through the fresh spring air with her mistress. Catherine walked Nocette out into the yard, grasped the sidesaddle and sprang up despite her heavy skirts, settling her light frame on Nocette’s back.
The land between Redbourn Place and John Lowe’s farm at Haddenden was level, and wooded in places, with the River Ver, slow and silver, winding in and out between copses and ponds. Watling Street ran away to the northwest but Catherine avoided it, as it was notorious, even in broad daylight, for footpads and cutthroats. The road was deserted, and she crossed straight over. Behind a gap in the hedge she knew a stony track, which soon disappeared behind trees, and then curved through weedy meadows, where Lowe’s horses grazed, to the tall timber-framed building. She had been expecting Lowe to be out planting barley like the other tenants, in the first sunshine after a long cold spell, but he was sitting on a log stump, in his farmyard, big shoulders hunched over a task. His jacket, damp and stained with mud, hung upon the gatepost, and on a rough table lay a pair of snaphance pistols. He had taken them apart and was cleaning them with a rag, scowling down at them with heavy blond eyebrows. He lived alone, his life emptied out by the Civil War. His father and brothers had died fighting on the King’s side; his mother had wasted away with grief. After a hard existence, his wife had died in childbirth.
‘My lady,’ he said, touching his forehead, but did not get up. Stormy grey eyes with black lashes glared up at her from under the pale brows. The sun glittered on the steel mechanisms in his thick hands.
‘Good morning, Mr Lowe,’ said Catherine, looking down at him from the height of her saddle.
‘My hunting pistols,’ he said, although she had not asked. His eyes dropped back to his task and his mouth relaxed as he polished the bright metal. ‘See that, a beauty. This flint sits on the end of the cock, sits up like that, and then I pull this back, look how it strikes the sparks off the frizzen? Fill the pan there with powder, your main charge down here, strike a spark – bang!’ His fist hit the table with emphasis. Nocette shied her head up, and Catherine patted and soothed her.
‘Your horse is a skittish one then,’ he said contemptuously.
‘She’s a lovely steady lass,’ said Catherine. ‘But you shouldn’t try to frighten her.’
He snorted. ‘My horses are used to it,’ he said. ‘From hunting.’
‘What do you hunt, Mr Lowe?’ said Catherine, but he ignored the question.
‘What have you come to see me about, Mistress Teme?’ he asked.
‘I came to tell you, my husband is selling Haddenden to Sir George Morrow.’
‘Morrow!’ Lowe spat. ‘He’s a bastard, a rackrent.’
‘He has to, we’ve no money.’ She blurted out the words.
‘No-one has any money, Mistress Teme,’ he said, ‘except for those who grovel before the Roundheads.’
He stood up abruptly at the table, holding one of the pistols, his seat overbalancing backwards. Catherine reined Nocette in as the black mare instinctively moved away.
‘Like to try your hand at a shot, my lady?’ asked John. He was holding a pistol towards her, offering the butt. She smiled, and dismounted.
She aimed the pistol towards the gatepost, where his coat was hanging, about twenty feet away. She fumbled with the mechanism under his instruction, then, sighting down the barrel, she fired. The pistol kicked back against her arm, jarring her elbow, but she held it steady. Nocette, tethered at a safe distance, snorted and flicked up her head, but was otherwise unperturbed. The shot went through the coat into the wood.
‘You’ve shot me in the back!’ Lowe laughed.
‘By God’s grace, I wasn’t aiming at your head!’ teased Catherine. Then she saw his intense expression and looked down. The pistol was still smoking in her hand, the grey spirals vanishing in the sunlight. She could smell the burnt powder and her arm felt sore. She put the pistol down on the table.
‘You only get one shot,’ he said, staring into her face. And she thought, one shot, one shot at life, have I spent mine already?
‘I’m sorry, I’ve spoiled your coat,’ she muttered.
‘I can easily get another,’ he said. ‘You can come hunting with me if you wish, my lady.’
‘Hunting? What do you hunt?’ she asked.
‘Roundheads, Puritans, and regicides,’ he said.
‘You’ll have to give me some instruction in the art,’ she replied.
Catherine crept out of Redbourn Place unnoticed, and rode quietly away in the moonlight. As arranged she met John on Watling Street, where the track joined from Haddenden, and they rode for a few minutes in the direction of London. A cold breeze chilled them as they waited in the shadows under the trees. After a while, they heard the clatter of approaching hooves and the grinding of carriage wheels.
‘Remember the plan,’ whispered John. Then he rode Gabriel calmly in front of the coach, the dapple-grey stallion suddenly lit by the moon. The coach horses skidded to a halt, their heads flung upwards in panic. The coachman shouted at them, but they continued to buck and plunge in the traces, and he struggled to stop them overturning the carriage.
‘Stand and deliver!’ shouted John, his eyes buried in the dark slits of a mask, reins in one hand, pistol in the other, trained steadily on the carriage, as his horse stood like a statue.
On the verges, Catherine was waiting, masked and cloaked. A black plumed hat hid her bright hair. Quelling her desperate excitement, she held her pistol steady in her right hand, the second pistol across the pommel ready to be drawn.
The carriage horses started to quiet down, and John gestured to Catherine with his head. She rode forward keeping her pistol trained upon the coachman and John nudged his horse to the carriage door. He wrenched the door open and peered into the dark interior.
‘Stand and deliver!’ he called again, and reached in, as though something were being offered from inside. But, as he stretched in his arm, there was a shot from within the carriage. Catherine saw the flash and immediately pulled her trigger. Her shot went wide of the coachman, there was a crack of the whip and the coachman urged the horses suddenly forward. Catherine trained her pistol on them as they fled, but suddenly she saw John slumped across his horse’s neck. Blood trickled down the dapple-grey flank. He was wounded. Silence fell as the horses’ hooves clattered away into the distance.
Catherine could not have told later how she got John back to Haddenden. She held Gabriel’s bridle, not that he needed leading and could just as easily have found his own way home. The night grew dark, clouds were blown across the moon and then rain sluiced down upon them. Catherine shivered, and hoped that it would wash away their tracks. After a while they left the road for the stony track that led to Haddenden, and saw the faint glimmer of the single lantern they had left burning in the window.
‘Nearly home, John’, she said, he did not reply.
The came to the farmyard and she dismounted Nocette, leaving her standing in the rain. She dragged open the kitchen door and pulled Gabriel as close to the door as she could. She pushed back John’s mask, and the faint light showed the whiteness of his face. Blood still ebbed from underneath him where he was lolling across Gabriel’s grey withers, a dark stream that dissolved in rain and pooled on the stones in the yard. It was no good. She would not be able to get him to dismount. Taking the lantern, she led Gabriel into the stable and spread out a pile of clean straw.
‘Get down, Gabriel,’ she said, pulling the wise grey head gently downwards. Obediently the horse knelt and lay down, allowing John to slither slowly into the straw.
‘Good boy Gabriel’, she said. Nocette had come inside and was watching. Catherine would have loved to have unharnessed the two horses and made them comfortable, but for now John was in urgent need.
The shot had penetrated his left arm, and blood spurted from a gash in the dark cloth of his coat. Catherine took off her black cloak and tried to tear a strip for a bandage but the fabric was too thick. Instead she pulled her chemise out from inside her dress, balled up the fine muslin and pressed it to the wound. Blood soaked through the pad of cloth but she kept pressing desperately, praying the bleeding would stop. John was still breathing, raspingly, fast and shallow. He was still not responding to her desperate sobs.
She found that by pressing on his arm slightly above the wound, she could stop the blood flow. She kept up the pressure though her arm ached with the effort, not daring to let go. He was terribly cold, but still alive, his breathing still fast and shallow. He moaned quietly. She lay down by his left side, kicking her skirts over his cold wet clothes, trying to warm him with her body. At length she must have fallen asleep. Her hand relaxed on his arm. It was the first time she had slept beside a man for several years.
When she woke, she sat up sharply. She was aware immediately of the warmth between them, and the smell of blood. John was still asleep and lay his side, still tangled in her skirts. Her arm had been around his chest and she had been resting up against his back. His breathing had eased, and some colour had returned to his face. The sleeve of his coat was stiff with dried blood, and her crumpled chemise had stuck to the wound, but the bleeding had stopped. She woke him and he cursed softly as he opened his eyes, then forced a smile.
After that she nursed him for several weeks, slipping back and forth from Redbourn Place and clinging to the echo of his warmth in her chilled bones. Then, one damp April day, she rode out of Redbourn at dawn, past bare hedgerows cobwebbed with diamonds. She heard the snort of a horse and John was riding towards her on the path.
‘Good morrow, Mistress Teme!’ he called out, more animated than she had seen him of late.
‘I was coming to see you’ she said, reining in Nocette. ‘You should have remained at Haddenden.’
‘Last night I heard news of great importance,’ he said. He had a wild look in his eyes, as if he had caught a fever. ‘Our lord and master, Oliver Cromwell himself, is to journey along Watling Street in two days’ time! He shall not pass here unmolested!’
‘You must be utterly mad!’ she cried out. ‘You will be killed for sure.’ She was set against it, even though John argued that Cromwell and his henchmen were the source of all their griefs and woes.
‘If I died trying to take him, it would be better than living on into my dotage, knowing I had that opportunity and let it go,’ he said, and she could see that she would never dissuade him.
‘Would you leave me to fail, alone?’ he said at length, pushed Gabriel forward so their saddles were side by side, and leaned across to kiss her lips. She could easily have spurred Nocette away, but reined in and kept her horse still, the longer to savour the moment, their mouths joining despite the shifting of the horses. He stretched his good arm around her back and then suddenly crushed her against him, driving his lips down hard against hers. She was breathless.
‘Well?’ he asked, lifting his lips without relaxing his arm.
‘No?’ he strained his kiss against hers again.
She continued to resist, until he said that a stronger form of persuasion was needed, and led them across the field to his farm.
Sir Edward Teme came to Redbourn to preside over Lowe’s interrogation and trial. He seemed oblivious to the resentment in his wife’s bitter glances, as they dined together on hideous food, served at a snail’s pace by Yardley.
‘I must bring Keyson up from London with me to cook next time,’ said Teme. Catherine replied that this was her usual fare, and if she could live on it then so could he.
‘You’re getting terribly provincial,’ he said, with a sneer. ‘It would never do in London society, to live like this.’
‘I have no other choice,’ said Catherine, ‘with the miserable allowance you give me, from my inheritance, which you have consumed to pay for your own pleasures, and doubtless those of Fat Anne.’ She spat the name out with disgust.
Teme shrugged. ‘I’ll be grateful when this damned trial is done with,’ he said. ‘Justice be done, and then back to town away from this miserable place, and your company, madam, which leaves me cold.’
Catherine’s anger burned in her throat, as Teme concluded that tomorrow Lowe would be hung, drawn, and quartered.
‘How can you presume?’ she burst out. ‘He’s not even finished his trial yet!’
‘Oh, why such passion?’ Teme raised an eyebrow, and smiled mirthlessly. ‘I heard his accomplice was a woman of some sort. Nothing to do with you then?’
Catherine looked down at the congealed food in her plate and was silent.
‘He has been interrogated at length,’ Teme said deliberately, ‘but will divulge nothing.’
Catherine stared at the wall behind her husband’s head. She knew she would always torment herself with the dire failure of their attempt at Cromwell. He had been too heavily guarded, with outriders carrying lanterns. As she had spurred Nocette forward to stop the coach, she had been caught between the outriders.
‘Save yourself!’ John had shouted, firing in to the air to draw them off. Panicking, Catherine had escaped across the fields, and John had been apprehended.
The day after the execution, Edward Teme set his wig and his hat straight before descending the stone steps of Redbourn into his waiting carriage. As it rumbled away, Catherine did not trouble to bid him farewell, but locked in her chamber, she cleaned and loaded John’s pistols before slipping down to the stables. If she rode directly across the fields, she would soon catch Edward on Watling Street. He never knew the identity of his masked killer.
Catherine preyed on Watling Street for another year, terrorising all who travelled that way, revenging John’s death. One evening she stopped and robbed a carter, without noticing the men riding behind his bales of hay. She was shot, and rode, bleeding, back to Redbourn Place, where she died alone in her chamber. Not long after, Redbourn was consumed in a mysterious fire, and for centuries afterwards, ghostly hoofbeats could be heard in the fields around Watling Street.

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